Is there another academic as broadly educated, thought-provoking, understandable and just good-hearted as Deirdre McCloskey? There can’t be many. In her scholarly breadth, if not her conclusions exactly, she rivals meta-historian Christopher Dawson.
She is a full professor of four disciplines at the University of Illinois at Chicago: Economics, History, English and Communications, and an adjunct professor of Philosophy and Classics. Her deep, multi-disciplinary knowledge is obvious in her work, and solves problems that narrower scholars cannot. She is an engaging speaker and splendid writer as you can see from her many interviews and encyclopaedic website. A self-confessed libertarian but with decidedly Burkean tendencies, an iconoclastic stalwart of virtue, a transsexual and a devout Christian, if she sounds like a contradiction she isn’t. Professor McCloskey strikes me, after a few weeks of devouring her material online, a modicum of correspondence and speaking to mutual acquaintances, as being exceptionally bright and wise but otherwise perfectly normal. The Harvard professor’s daughter, a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, lacks the relentless consistency of ideological libertarians and seems not overly burdened by ego, while one detects in her a thriving sense of optimism and, dare one say it, happiness.
She has written on “the economic history of Britain (19th-century trade, modern history, and medieval agriculture) the quantification of historical inquiry (cliometrics), the rhetoric of economics, the rhetoric of the human sciences, economic methodology, virtue ethics, feminist economics, heterodox economics, the role of mathematics in economic analysis, and the use (and misuse) of significance testing in economics,” philosophy and several other disciplines that I cannot yet define. But most interesting is her great mystery now solved; a detective’s obsession that grew over more than two decades; her Professor Moriarty, if you will.
It starts with a riddle, about what she calls The Great Enrichment from “1800 to the present, the most surprising secular event in history.” The unprecedented surge in Western wealth led to “a rise in real wages 1800 to the present by a factor of 10 or 30 or (allowing for improved quality of goods) 100, which is to say 900 or 2,900 or 9,900 percent.” She explains that it “…is certainly the largest change in the human condition since the ninth millennium BC. It ranks with the first domestications of plants and animals and the building of the first towns. Possibly, modern economic growth is as large and important an event in human history as the sudden perfection of language, in Africa around 80,000 to 50,000 BC.” Addressing it on a more personal level she clarifies:
In 1800 the average income per person…all over the planet was…an average of $3 a day. Imagine living in present-day Rio or Athens or Johannesburg on $3 a day…That’s three-fourths of a cappuccino at Starbucks. It was and is appalling. (Now)… the average person makes and consumes over $100 a day…And that doesn’t take account of the great improvement in the quality of many things, from electric lights to antibiotics. Young people in Japan and Norway and Italy are even in conservatively measured terms around thirty times better off in material circumstances than their great-great-great-great-great grandparents. All the other leaps into the modern world—more democracy, the liberation of women, improved life expectancy, greater education, spiritual growth, artistic explosion—are firmly attached to the Great Fact of modern history, the increase by 2,900 percent in food and education and travel.
But why? Professor McCloskey first explains what the answers are not: “The old materialist story says that the Industrial Revolution came from material causes, from investment or theft, from higher saving rates or from imperialism. You’ve heard it: ‘Europe is rich because of its empires’; ‘The United States was built on the backs of slaves’; ‘China is getting rich because of trade.’ Then she identifies other common misattributions and, elsewhere with great dexterity, picks them off one by one:
The British Industrial Revolution was a glorious start. All credit is due. Yet such idea-rich revolutions had happened occasionally before, as in fifth-century Athens or twelfth-century Song China or fifteenth-century Italy. The exception this one last time was the follow-on, the explosive Great Enrichment of ordinary people. Why? The causes were not, to mention some of the usual suggestions, coal, thrift, science, transport, high male wages, low female-and-child wages, surplus value, human capital, geography, institutions, infrastructure, nationalism, the quickening of commerce, the late medieval run-up, the First Divergence, the Black Death, the original accumulation of capital, eugenic materialism, high science, or property rights. Such causes had been fairly routine in a dozen of the leading organized societies from ancient Egypt and China down to Tokugawa Japan and the Ottoman Empire.
Neither does she place great faith in even the cleverest written constitutions alone: “The crux…is how the constitutions came about…When a society or its elite earnestly wants them to work, they usually do, pretty much regardless of imperfections in the incentives, especially if the imperfections fall within the usual range of human error.” Nor was it accumulated capital. Instead, “our riches were not made by piling brick upon brick, bachelor’s degree upon bachelor’s degree, bank balance upon bank balance, but by piling idea upon idea.”
The chief idea, she explains, was the emergence and later triumph of what she calls “Bourgeois Virtues,” starting in early 17th Century Holland and then in early 18th Century Britain. It’s a point made before but never so well or so thoroughly.
Yes, trade became respectable and even admired, but just as importantly that raised the self-esteem of entrepreneurs and merchants and with it their ethical behaviour. Reasonably meritocratic and open from the start, the Dutch and British militaries and professions were not restricted to the sons of aristocracy and gentry as in France. Opportunity spread to others. Once admired, the bourgeois grew in number, impact and further esteem. But the path to wealth started in minds, led to nations, spread attitudes and values further and deeper, and resulted in widespread riches rather than the other way around.
Stressing values and virtues, she strikes hard at conventional economists, their ideological horse-blinders and their straw-man, Homo Economicus, supposedly motivated only by Reason and Prudence. She argues “against the dubious assertion from the political right that technological betterment comes automatically from private property. And…against the logically dubious assertion on the political left that the betterment comes automatically from high wages.”
“The bourgeois virtues are merely the Seven Virtues exercised in a commercial society. They are not hypothetical,” she writes, but neither are they purely commercial in their wider effects, having altered cultures now girdling the planet. Best we let her identify these bourgeois virtues and show how they are deployed.
The leading bourgeois virtue is the Prudence to buy low and sell high. I admit it. There. But it is also the prudence to trade rather than to invade, to calculate the consequences, to pursue the good with competence— Herbert Hoover, for example, energetically rescuing many Europeans from starvation after 1918.
Another bourgeois virtue is the Temperance to save and accumulate, of course. But it is also the temperance to educate oneself in business and in life, to listen to the customer, to resist the temptations to cheat, to ask quietly whether there might be a compromise here—Eleanor Roosevelt negotiating the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
A third is the Justice to insist on private property honestly acquired. But it is also the justice to pay willingly for good work, to honor labor, to break down privilege, to value people for what they can do rather than for who they are, to view success without envy, making capitalism work since 1776.
A fourth is the Courage to venture on new ways of business. But it is also the courage to overcome the fear of change, to bear defeat unto bankruptcy, to be courteous to new ideas, to wake up next morning and face fresh work with cheer, resisting the despairing pessimism of the clerisy from 1848 to the present. And so the bourgeoisie can have Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Courage, the pagan four. Or the Scottish three—Prudence, Temperance, and Justice, the artificial virtues—plus enterprise, that is, Courage with another dose of Temperance.
Beyond the pagan virtues is the Love to take care of one’s own, yes. But it is also a bourgeois love to care for employees and partners and colleagues and customers and fellow citizens, to wish all of humankind well, to seek God, finding human and transcendent connection in the marketplace in 2006, and in a Scottish benevolence c. 1759.
Another is the Faith to honor one’s community of business. But it is also the faith to build monuments to the glorious past, to sustain traditions of commerce, of learning, of religion, finding identity in Amsterdam and Chicago and Osaka.
Another is the Hope to imagine a better machine. But it is also the hope to see the future as something other than stagnation or eternal recurrence, to infuse the day’s work with a purpose, seeing one’s labor as a glorious calling, 1533 to the present. So the bourgeoisie can have Faith, Hope, and Love, these three, the theological virtues.
Indeed, any Christian who believes in Natural Law understands that Virtue has its origins in God’s commandments, but also in what God made Man to be. Predilections and rewards, practical and spiritual, can be as one.
But is that enough to nourish a culture: commercial virtues spilling into some other aspects of life however important? Professor McCloskey never says it is, and her Christianity implies that it would be folly to expect so. Instead, at minimum it improves something that while done badly was still always done: “There’s no evidence, actually, that greed or miserliness or self-interest was new in the 16th or the 19th or any other century. ‘The infamous hunger for gold’ is from The Aeneid, Book III, line 57, not from Benjamin Franklin or Advertising Age. The propensity to truck and barter is human nature. Commerce is not some evil product of recent manufacture. Commercial behavior is one of the world’s oldest professions.”
Moreover, living in a Fallen World, moral perfection is unachievable. She explains:
Of course, like an aristocracy or a priesthood or a peasantry or a proletariat or an intelligentsia, a middle class is capable of evil, even in a God-blessed America. The American bourgeoisie, beginning in the late 19th century, organized official and unofficial apartheids. It conspired violently against unions. It supported the excesses of nationalism. It claimed credit for a religious faith that had no apparent influence on its behavior. Nowhere does being bourgeois ensure ethical behavior. During World War II, Krupp, Bosch, Hoechst, Bayer, Deutsche Bank, Daimler Benz, Dresdner Bank, and Volkswagen, all of them, used slave labor, with impunity. The bourgeois bankers of Switzerland stored gold for the Nazis. Many a businessman is an ethical shell or worse. Even the virtues of the bourgeoisie, Lord knows, do not lead straight to Heaven.
She argues that we ought not to let the unachievable ideal kill off the living good. She contrasts the first half of the West’s 19th Century with the intellectual aftermath of 1848; when an idealised past inaccurately romanticised the Middle Ages; when Fascists and Marxists and their fellow-travellers sought perfection in dangerous ideology; when resurgent Western aristocrats and squires, and intellectuals such as William Morris, longed for an often impractical world wholly populated by artisans and gentleman-farmers; where after two hundred years the bourgeoisie were treated again with scorn by elites. She misses the dynamism, opportunity and widespread respect for achievement that defined the Ages of Johnson and Smith, Jenner and Davy, Stephenson and Brunel. Or in America, Fulton and McCormack, Morse and Whitney.
She praises a world where the technical elite of “Holland and Britain and the United States…came from ordinary people—which is the only way to achieve a sufficient mass of technically literate folk, oriented not towards rare luxuries or military victories but towards the ordinary goods of peacetime for ordinary people—iron bridges, chemical bleaching, power weaving of wool cloth.” Where “in Britain… a promising lad from the working class could become a bourgeois master of new machines and of new institutions, as an engineer or an entrepreneur. Or at least he could do pretty well as a clockmaker or spinning-machine mechanic.”
To a great extent this admiration still occurs, but the romance and respect have declined in the West while they thrive apace in the fast-growing economies of Asia, where the widely-used title of “engineer” is as admired as “doctor” or “lawyer.” In modern Britain, no member or aspiring member of the chattering classes wants a son or daughter to be an engineer; a mark of great pride in Sir Walter Scott’s Edinburgh or Peel’s London or Edison’s 1847 birthplace in Milan, Ohio.
Part of the Western bourgeoisie’s fall from esteem may stem from a more complex technical and economic world; where instead of one celebrated inventor a vast team makes the advances; where companies protect patents and reward performance with cash and not kudos; where the division of labour is now so vast that few people understand how anything is made or from whence it comes; where more people work as clerks for multi-nationals than in simple machine-shops where they could tinker, invent and dream.
Thanks to The Great Enrichment, an achievement comparable to man learning to speak or make fire, the world is on what seems to be an unstoppable journey to healthier and longer lives, a wealth of riches and perhaps a surfeit of choices. Unstoppability is rescued from hubris only by an ever-growing global consensus.
Its ramifications, far beyond economics, are political and cultural. In physical terms they are almost completely good, but how do we learn what to choose and consume? How ought we use our newfound money and time? Is our ultra-efficient global community now simply too integrated and large to permit older-styled and smaller communities that convey values beyond what preserves a commercial reputation or even the more widespread bourgeois virtues that Professor McCloskey so ably describes? In the words of the song so popular in the trenches of the Great War a century ago, “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?”
The late Oxford don, Duncan Williams, in his 1972 award-winning book Trousered Apes, warns of the rise of selfishness, emotionalism and anti-authoritarianism, then propelled chiefly by an elite animus against culture and tradition. But it is now more: a world in which deeper values, once underlying the bourgeoisie, formerly contained in faith and culture and conveyed by community, are now optional and are often judged on their utilitarian value alone. Over the past two amazingly productive but increasingly faithless, sceptical and utilitarian centuries, even Dr McCloskey’s limited but good bourgeois values were spread almost exclusively by practicality. Dr Williams warns:
…if we continue in our present course the gap between our technological potency and ethical impotency will widen into a vast and unbridgeable chasm. The ultimate results of such an attitude, involving the total destruction of self and all society including everything that has been thought, fashioned and striven for by man—the Agamemnon, the work of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe and Tolstoy; the teachings of Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Christ, Augustine, Pascal and Montaigne; the discoveries of Galileo, Bacon, Locke, Newton, Pasteur, Curie, Einstein and Fleming—will be the ultimate and empty triumph of the ‘Raskolnikovian’.
The listed scientists are at least guaranteed immortality in the useful principles they left behind. But will the others, including artists, architects and composers, survive in a world of admirable bourgeois honesty in which everything else is optional and judged by its immediate utility? Will the inspiration survive that once they conveyed? What will replace the faith that underpinned taste and virtue for almost two millennia?
Professor McCloskey may say that we are asking too much, even of mankind’s most physically productive advance since we learned to grow food. But meanwhile she goes to church.
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